Difference between Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana

Updated on March 8, 2017

Japanese writing is known to be one of the most complicated writing systems in the world. It uses the logographic character type kanji, and the syllabic character types hiragana and katakana. Kanji, hiragana and katakana are almost always used together in written sentences. This article will help you understand the differences among the three.

Descriptions

Kanji
Kanji characters

Kanji is the system of Japanese writing that uses characters derived from the Chinese hanji. Kanji literally means “Han”, or Chinese characters. Kanji is logographic, which means that each character represents a word or phrase to convey an idea. Each character may sometimes be read differently, depending on the context or how it is used together with other characters. Kanji is used for nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives.

The exact number of kanji characters is not known. The most commonly used ones number between 2,000 and 3,000, and there are thousands more that are occasionally and rarely used.

Hiragana
Hiragana syllabary

Hiragana is the basic Japanese phonetic language. It is the first system of writing Japanese children learn in school. Literally, it means “simple” kana. Each hiragana character corresponds to one sound in the Japanese language, and holds no meaning by itself. There are 46 hiragana character symbols. A writer may express words in their syllabic equivalent as hiragana characters instead of writing the kanji symbol. This is useful for readers who are not familiar with kanji, or if the writer does not know the kanji characters for particular words. Hiragana may also be written in small script beside the kanji symbol to serve as a reading or pronunciation guide. The hiragana in this case is referred to as furigana.

Hiragana is also used as suffixes in conjunction with kanji to give a particular meaning. This particular use for hiragana is called okurigana. Hiragana also provides grammatical structures to sentences. Short modifiers, called particles, are used together with nouns, verbs and adjectives. These particles are usually written using hiragana.

Katakana
Katakana syllabary

Katakana is the other syllabary used in Japanese writing. Together with hiragana, they are collectively called kana. Hiragana and katakana work the same way, where each katakana character has a corresponding syllable. Katakana means “fragmentary” kana, with characters derived from components of more complex kanji symbols. It is made up of 48 characters. Katakana is mainly used for words of foreign, non-Chinese origin as well as foreign names and names of places. It is also used for technical and scientific terms, as well as for onomatopoeic words.

Kanji vs Hiragana vs Katakana

So, what are the differences among kanji, hiragana and katakana?

Kanji are logographic characters that represent blocks of meaning and correspond to whole words or phrases. Hiragana and katakana are syllabic characters, with each character representing a sound or syllable. Hiragana is usually used to express the grammatical relationship between words in a sentence. It may also be used to replace kanji to express words in syllabic characters. Katakana, on the other hand, is used for foreign words, names, names of places, technical and scientific terms and onomatopoeic words. Kanji characters are derived from Chinese hanji and are usually complex and made up of many strokes. Hiragana use curvy strokes, hence often referred to as onnade, or women’s writing. Katakana is more rigid than hiragana and has more edges.

Comparison Chart

KanjiHiraganaKatakana
Logographic – each character represents whole words or phrasesSyllabic – each character represents a corresponding phonetic soundSyllabic – each character represents a corresponding phonetic sound
Used for blocks of ideasUsed for grammatical relationships between ideas or objectsUsed for foreign names, names of foreign places, words of foreign origin, scientific and technical terms
Characters are usually complex, composed of multiple strokesCharacters are more curvy and have less edgesCharacters are more rigid and have sharp edges

Video

Watch this video to determine the basic differences among kanji, hiragana and katakana writing systems.